August is National Immunization Month and with the school year approaching, there is no better time to clear up some confusion about vaccines. “Clinicians of a certain age can remember diphtheria and polio,” says Dr. Harriet Hellman of Hampton Community Health Care. “The parents of infants and young children today do not remember these diseases,” she adds, which is why it’s so important to know the facts.
What is a vaccine or immunization?
A vaccine is a treatment which is designed to prevent infection, most often against viruses. Vaccines contain certain proteins from viruses (or, in some cases, significantly weakened versions of viruses) which stimulate your immune system to develop antibodies. These antibodies linger in the body and serve as the immune system’s memory. When you come in contact with the virus later, your immune system remembers, the antibodies attack the virus, and you stay healthy!
What is the science behind vaccines? Do they really help?
Vaccines, like all medications, go through a rigorous process before being approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Vaccines start in laboratories and are extensively tested, and then carefully studied in clinical trials with volunteer participants. After a vaccine is approved, the FDA continues to monitor for side effects, complications, and efficacy. These studies have been critical in helping to prevent life-threatening diseases. Some diseases, such as smallpox, have been completely eradicated. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) makes the standard recommendations for vaccines, which are then endorsed by groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). A subgroup of the CDC called the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice (ACIP) reviews data about vaccines and tweaks the recommendations as necessary. More vaccines mean fewer illnesses and healthier kids.
Does my child really need to be immunized?
In a word—yes! Not only do children need immunizations to prevent infections, so do adults. The CDC also makes recommendations for patients over 18 and in special situations (such as travelers and health care providers, who may be exposed to unusual illnesses).
What about herd immunity?
Herd immunity is the idea that a disease will become so scarce in a population that is well-immunized that can’t be transmitted easily. This helps to protect vulnerable people who cannot be immunized, such as people (including children) receiving chemotherapy, pregnant women and newborn babies, and those with certain severe allergies. Bur herd immunity relies on the majority of people in the population being immunized—when more and more people choose against vaccination, herd immunity fails and the most vulnerable people are no longer protected.
Do immunizations cause disease?
Many vaccines are not made from living viruses, but proteins from viruses that have been killed. In these cases, there is no way that the virus can be transmitted to you. In vaccines made from living (but severely weakened) viruses, there is a very small chance of developing a mild form of the disease the vaccine is protecting you from. In people with normal immune systems, this risk is almost non-existent. As vaccines have become more sophisticated, the number of proteins used in each of them has decreased, making your immune system work less for the same impact. Common side effects of vaccines have to do with stimulating the immune system, but are mild. Unusual side effects are very rare.
Where can I learn more?
Ask your pediatrician or primary care doctor! Kids are eligible for vaccines, regardless of insurance status, through the Vaccines for Children program, a federally funded initiative.
Dr. Rina Meyer is a board certified pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Stony Brook Children’s and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. Her views are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of Stony Brook Children’s and the Renaissance School of Medicine.